Arguing for Biblical Equality Between Men and Women in Ministry
I made a decision a couple of years ago that I would include a section on my website for the papers I am writing during my seminary days. This is a position paper I had to write for my theology class and I decided to argue for the position that men and women are both gifted by God to serve in full capacities as co-equals. I will warn you, it is quite a bit more academic than my normal weekly posts, so if that is not your cup of tea, I completely understand!
For those of you who enjoy these posts, I hope you are encouraged and enlightened to both positions on an issue that has split the church.
Arguing for Biblical Equality
Between Men and Women in Ministry
If a woman exhibits the gifts of pastoral shepherding, teaching, and/or leadership she should be allowed to use those gifts even if it means she holds a position of leadership over men.
The Christian church's historical perspective is that women should be "restricted from leadership positions over men.” However, “during the twentieth century, Christians increasingly questioned traditional views in light of an increased awareness of scriptural teachings and the increased sense of a call to ordained ministry among women.” This paper will argue for the position that even though the Christian church has historically held the position that women are not to hold positions of leadership over men, “the trajectory of Scripture promotes the equal opportunity of men and women to use all the gifts and talents bestowed on them by God” and thus if a woman exhibits the gifts of pastoral shepherding, teaching, and/or leadership she should be allowed to use those gifts even if it means she holds a position of leadership over men.
INTERPRETING THE CREATION STORY
Many Christians use the creation story in Genesis, where “the Bible declares that God created woman to be a ‘helper’ and ‘partner’ of man (Gen 2:18)” as a reason to believe that women were created to be the help-mates, or completers of men. As a result of this, those who take this theological view believe it is unbiblical that women should be able to hold positions of leadership over men. By backing up this argument with examples throughout the Old Testament that say that “only males were allowed to serve as priests before the Lord (Exod. 28-29; Lev 8-9), and only males were allowed to teach the law (Lev. 10:11), it is clear [that the] restrictions implied that only males were allowed to give spiritual instruction.” What those who take this position fail to address is that Genesis 1:27 says that “both men and women [were] created in the image of God [and that] all of God’s commands to be fruitful and multiply, to fill and subdue the earth, and to have dominion over it pertain[ed] to both men and women (Gen 1:28).”
Another issue comes up when translating the Hebrew words used for “helper” and “partner” in Genesis 2:18. The word “helper” translates as the Hebrew word “עֵ֫זֶר,” which means “person who contributes to the fulfillment of a need or furtherance of an effort or purpose,” implying that without the woman, man would be unable to fulfill his God-given role for humanity. Among other places in the Old Testament, this same word, “עֵ֫זֶר,” is used throughout the Psalms in reference to God as Helper (Ps 70:5, 121:1 & 2, 124:8, 146:5), suggesting that the woman was created as a rescuer, deliverer, and protector rather than a lesser equal partner (or complementarian) of man.
The word “partner” used in Genesis 2:20 is used as the Hebrew word “נֶ֫גֶד,” which when translated into English, it means “a person with whom one shares an intimate relationship: one member of a couple” and “one that shares: partaker.” This definition would suggest that the “full participation of women in church and society” (Maria Pilar Aquino) and marriage relationships are indeed biblical according to the creation story in Genesis.
If one is to begin the story of creation at Genesis 1:1 and believes that man and woman are both created in the image of God, then God’s original design was that male and female would serve alongside each other, teaching, and leading each other as equals. This would mean that God's original design for man and woman is that both males and females are to lead and serve each other in all aspects of life and ministry. “Such a vision understands the Holy One as essentially compassionate, just, and life-giving; it asserts that women and men are called to the wholeness of life in God; to relate to one another on the basis of justice, solidarity, and mutuality.” (Maria Pilar Aquino)
INTERPRETING THE WORDS OF PAUL
A common argument in regards to restricting the role of leadership for women is 1 Corinthians 11:3, where Paul says, “I want you to understand that Christ is the head of every man, and the husband is the head of his wife, and God is the head of Christ.” Those who use this verse to argue their point that women should not lead men, admit that there are times in the Bible where God used women to lead men, but add that "Scripture must be used to interpret experience, not vice versa" and that "the fact that God has at times used women in positions of spiritual authority over men should not alter the meaning of biblical texts that clearly teach this is not God's ideal will.” Paul’s use of the words in describing leaders as “husband of but one wife” (NIV 1 Tim 3:2) and how “Deacons also must be ‘men worthy of respect’ who are ‘the husband of but one wife (1 Tim 3:8, 12 NIV)’” are especially important to prove this position as biblical. In attempts to find ways to prove the argument that females should not hold positions of power within a church setting, there is a failure to see how this type of “Christianity has been a major contributor to the preservation of sexist social relationships, theologies, attitudes, and behavior” (Maria Pilar Aquino) toward women.
These patriarchal views show a concerted effort to dismiss the multitude of passages within the Bible that portray God using women to lead, teach, and minister to men. They have created a unified effort to “maintain women at systemic disadvantage,” (Maria Pilar Aquino) using Scripture to maintain the belief of biblical male superiority while “the emphasis [should be] on the building of community by relying on the resources of all, male and female, young and old.” (Diana L. Hayes)
One cannot dismiss passages where God spoke through, blessed, and gifted women leaders for the sake of furthering His Kingdom such as “Priscilla (Acts 18:2-3; Rom 16:3-4), and [the] four sisters who were prophets (Acts 21:9),” John 20:16-18, where women were the first ones to tell the apostles Jesus has risen from the dead, Acts 18:26, where both Priscilla and Aquila taught Apollos, [and] where Paul refers to both Euodia and Syntyche as coworkers (Phil 4:2-3).
By suggesting Paul believed that women’s gifts of leadership “is not God’s ideal will” by pointing to verses such as 1 Corinthians 2:10, one misses out on the beauty, diversity, and holistic approach Paul used that was radical to the patriarchal system of that time. For example, Paul’s very first expositor, missionary, and preacher was Phoebe, a woman, who very well would have been there while Paul wrote the letter to the Romans, discussed it with him, took it to the church in Rome (missionary), read it to them (preached), and discussed it with them (taught).
Phoebe's jobs are that of teacher, preacher, and church leader, implying that Paul was very much for the shared and equal role between male and female church leaders.
In arguing that Paul was for female leaders, one must also mention Galatians 3:28, where Paul clarifies the equality of men and women in the bluntest terms, “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” One cannot argue against Paul’s obvious words here, so they are easier to skip over and dismiss to keep the patriarchal system greased up and running.
UNDERSTANDING OF THE TRINITY IN REGARDS TO FEMALE LEADERSHIP
Those who adhere to the theological belief that women should not be in leadership positions over men have used the Trinitarian relationship as an argument by saying that “there is a natural hierarchy within the Godhead,” where “the three work in perfect harmony with each other” but “the Father is simply different.” There is also the point out that the Bible never speaks of God the Father submitting to or receiving commands from the Son or the Spirit, however, the Bible does speak on how the Son and Spirit both submit and receive commands from the God the Father.
What this argument does is it dismisses the whole reason and outcome for the Council of Nicea in 325, where the Church argued against the heresy that Jesus was not fully divine, meaning that Jesus was not fully God. The decision was made that the Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit were three beings in one, equally powerful, equal persons, an equal community. This was the first of the major councils in the history of the Church, and each consecutive council brought up varying degrees of arguments against the Trinitarian community, but each time, the Church councils ruled in favor of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit as being equally powerful beings in one Trinitarian community of love.
To argue that “the three work in perfect harmony with each other” but “the Father is simply different” by definition is heresy, for in the words of the author of Hebrews, Jesus “is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.” That being said, using the argument that the Trinitarian relationship is hierarchical as a reason to support the patriarchal system and not allow women to use the God-given gifts they have graciously been given is unbiblical. As a result, the church must “recognize women as full members of the body of Christ and equal partners in ministry” just as the Trinitarian relationship is an all-inclusive, equal partnered community.
As one can see, even though the Christian Church has historically held the patriarchal view of Scripture that God did not intend for women to be in places of leadership over men, light is beginning to dawn and more and more Christians are seeing and experiencing the benefit of allowing women to use the gifts of leadership God has given them alongside men. We are not the ones who bestow spiritual gifts upon others, rather, the Holy Spirit is the one who generously gives spiritual gifts to those who love and follow Him. As His church, we are to be a community of love and acceptance that lifts each other’s gifts up, allowing the space for the Holy Spirit to move within that person. We are to put our preconceived patriarchal beliefs aside and allow room for God to move in the lives of women who are called “according to His purposes.” (Romans 8:28)
Our biblical narrative, how we see God and how we see others can be greatly diminished when we believe that only men are called to lead in positions of power within the church. God created man and woman in His image to be partakers and partners in this world. Paul lifted up the ministries of women who loved Jesus and he encouraged their partaking of leadership roles within the church. If one believes in the triune, tri-personal, tri-unity God-head and if the Trinity is to be used as an example for how we are to relate to one another, men and women should be seen and treated as equal partners in the work of the Kingdom.
Boyd, Gregory A., and Paul R. Eddy. Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2009.
Inc Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. (Springfield, MA:
Merriam-Webster, Inc., 2003).
Fabella, Virginia, and R. S. Sugirtharajah. Dictionary of Third World Theologies. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2000.
The Lexham Analytical Lexicon of the Hebrew Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press,
Thorsen, Don. An Exploration of Christian Theology. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2008.
Photo courtesy: Carolyn V from Unsplash (@sixteenmilesout)